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COVER STORY : On the Spot With 'Malcolm X' : Spike Lee's biggest test: steering a $25-million biography on the fiery African-American through a political and cultural minefield

February 02, 1992|MICHAEL WILMINGTON | Michael Wilmington writes about film for The Times

"Now, of course, there are times when you have to change the spokes, but the wheel has been the same. And we realize there are times when people are not going to be working with us. . . . But that's life and people move on. I've always told Ernest there's going to come a point when he's going to be directing and he won't be shooting my films. But I understand it."

If "Malcolm X," is a last hurrah for the first team, how does he feel about it?

"I feel good. Confident. I use a lot of sports analogies--but I'm like Magic (Johnson) or Michael (Jordan). If it's the last 10 seconds of the game . . . give me the ball! "

There's no way it won't go in the hole?

"No way. This one's a winner."

When the day's shoot finally wraps on 116th Street--the restaurant closes down, all the extras are long gone from the huge dining hall in the nearby Canaan Baptist Church, Dickerson's lights, cables, everything packed away--there's a sense, almost, of the end of a game, an emptying theater.

The Irish-American teamster-chauffeur talks avidly about Spike Lee's films. The locals who are huddled around the trash-barrel fire call publicist Anna Southall over and try to sell her the stray Siamese cat. Although she has two at home, she's tempted. But the cat isn't; it suddenly disappears. And, as you look up this street and the others, at Harlem's people walking up and down--happy, sad, desultory, buoyant, blase, frazzled, wondering what's going to happen next--it really does seem as if we've emerged from a cul-de-sac in time. As if nothing much had changed in all the years between the '60s and us, then and now.

Except for the street signs. Like the one at the end of West 115th, where the hookers teased Denzel Washington: The street that used to be called Lenox and is now Malcolm X Boulevard.

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